When I think of slavery, the images that come to mind are black and white. They are images of the past, images of African Americans before emancipation, a concept and a thing that is dead, gone and buried in the sheets of history (in its physicality at least, disregarding its effects). I fleetingly acknowledge it as a once-was and an is-no-more.
A human enslaving another, in any shape or form, is the ultimate act of dehumanisation. Of all the ways a human can mistreat another, slavery is one of the cruellest. A slave is afforded no freedoms, no choices, no freewill. They are property. Their purpose – as they are made to believe and live out – is to serve others. Their ‘master’ essentially controls their destiny and dictates their every move.
Unfortunately, however, slavery has not stayed in the past as I had myself believe or wanting to believe. Nor does enslavement necessarily mean serving a ‘master’ by performing household duties as typically thought to be case (a notion perpetuated by popular books and films – house elves in Harry Potter come to mind, and even willing maids and butlers who pop up onscreen occasionally). I know slavery still happens, I know people are exploited to the extent of being practically owned, but I never thought of it in the context of today. Or in its many forms, sex slavery included.
The inhumanity of it, combined with the detachment of my world and the world of slavery, is exactly why the ABC’s recent Four Corners episode shocked me. The episode covered an investigation into sex trafficking in Australia, and, more specifically, sex trafficking rings operating in Melbourne, Victoria.
The tales are haunting. In some cases, women – predominantly from Asia – move to Australia voluntarily to learn English (at least that’s what they are made to believe by their organising ‘travel agents’), however, upon arrival to Australia, their passports are seized and destroyed by sex traffickers and they are thrown into brothels, forced to work for hours on end 'servicing clients' to pay off a ‘debt bondage’. Can you even begin to imagine their suffering and trauma...? The shock they must feel? The pain of the sexual abuse? It's unfathomable. The testimonies of two women, read by actresses in the program, are tragic. They live in constant fear, they despise themselves and they say they feel dirty. Their stories, their voices, are two of the many enslaved and exploited female voices that are trapped, forced and sold into prostitution across the globe. Not only is sex slavery dehumanising in a general sense – it degrades and objectifies a woman’s body. It reflects the broader acts of violence against women that we, as a society, silently deem acceptable. It reflects the deeply seated view that women are inferior to men and that they are objects of male control. Even the way the sex workers were 'presented' to the client in one Melbourne brothel was insanely degrading. The secretly filmed footage shows sex workers walking out one by one, each leaving before the next presented herself. They are numbered, as though they are nameless non-humans.
Why do we let this go on? It goes on partly because sex work has a strong stigma attached to it, so anything to do with it, no matter how mind-blowingly harmful it is to the workers, to the enslaved, is swept beneath the rug. Sex slavery is 'taboo' because sex and women are involved in the equation. And law enforcement won't eliminate the dark face of the sex trade. We must redefine our values and perceptions as a society first to see sex slavery dwindle and vanish. We need to collectively and loudly say: Women are not sex objects.